Donald Trump declared himself a “big fan” of India on the campaign trail in 2016 as he courted Indian-American voters. As president, Mr Trump has hugged India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, calling him “fantastic” and “a beautiful man”.
Mr Trump’s warm words suggest that Washington wants a robust strategic relationship with India, which it sees as a potential counterweight to an ascendant China, and for the past two decades, New Delhi has also been inching closer to its old cold war “frenemy”.
But when two of Mr Trump’s top officials — Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, and Jim Mattis, defence secretary — meet counterparts for talks in Delhi this week, it will be against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty in the two countries’ relationship.
The US president has targeted New Delhi over trade, criticising its protectionist economic policies. India’s plans to spend $6bn on Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and its dependence on Iranian oil imports have also emerged as friction points.
In India, “there is a general sense that this [Trump] administration is different from a traditional [US] administration and the challenge of dealing with it is different”, said C Raja Mohan, director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute on South Asian Studies.
But overall, Mr Mohan said, India’s political and defence relationship with Washington was “the best” it had ever been. He said New Delhi would work through differences to “find a way to avoid a confrontation with the US”.
Randall Schriver, a senior Pentagon official, said the US wanted to elevate India “on par with close allies and partners”, and provide access to some of its most advanced military technologies. But he said the two countries would also “discuss irritants” over both Russia and Iran.
One point to resolve concerns military co-operation. India and the US have been in talks over Comcasa, a US agreement on communications compatibility and security, which outlines ground rules for technical co-operation to unlock the sales of high-tech US military equipment — including helicopters, drones and shared information platforms — to India.
Yet New Delhi has balked at American oversight provisions that some Indians believe would impinge on their sovereignty, and US officials were unsure whether the deal would be ready to be signed on Thursday.
“There is a desire on the US side to negotiate complete agreements quickly, but that just has not been the way things have worked with India, said Alyssa Ayres, at the Council on Foreign Relations.
While growing closer to the US, India has also preserved its traditionally friendly ties with Russia and with Iran — but the deterioration of Washington’s relations with these powers has caught India in the crossfire.
Last year the US Congress passed a law that would allow sanctions on countries making “significant” purchases of energy or weapons from Russia — rules that would affect India. A recently passed exemption is not automatic, and will probably instead be in Mr Trump’s gift to India.
“The question with this administration is, what will Trump see as an acceptable return for this waiver?” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India project at the Brookings Institution. “Will he demand a transaction in return, some give on the trade side or a big defence deal for the US as well?”
However, the Trump administration is unlikely to support its acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defence system, over separate operational security reasons.
Washington has long been frustrated with Indian economic protectionism, but previously downplayed its discontent to prioritise its long-term regional strategic agenda. Few Indians expect such soft-gloved treatment now.
Instead, New Delhi is expected to come under intense pressure to address some longstanding US economic concerns, such as lax protection for intellectual property rights, and high import tariffs and other barriers to market access.
“India is not trade friendly,” said Mr Mohan. “It’s a problem we have with everyone. Earlier US administrations were willing to give a pass to India on the trade issue. This administration is not giving a pass to the Canadians, so why would they give a pass to us?”
India’s relations with Iran are another tricky area, with Washington pressing India to cease all imports of Iranian oil as part of its new hardline policy.
However, the two countries are expected to find an accommodation. The US has already signalled support for India’s potentially sanctionable investment in Iran’s Chabahar port, which provides a land route to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan.
Whatever the tone of Thursday’s talks, Washington will be keen to promote closer ties and a good show. “Russia and Iran are sticking points, but the fact that the Trump administration is dealing with these privately is a sign of how much the relationship has changed,” said Ms Madan.
But she said India would face tough negotiations. Mr Trump, she said, “usually doesn’t give out freebies”.
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